The veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, Hilda Bernstein, who
has died of heart failure in Cape Town, aged 91, devoted most of her life to the cause of true
democracy in South Africa.
Anti-apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein
She was the wife of the late Rusty Bernstein who was tried for treason along with
Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial in 1964. Together, the couple campaigned for the end to white
She was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, the first
non-racial women's organisation in South Africa.
She was born Hilda Schwarz in London in 1915, the youngest of three sisters. Her
father was a Bolshevik who left the family for good when Hilda was 10, to return to the Soviet Union
to try to build a utopian socialist society there.
While trying to get a posting back to London to be reunited with his family, he
When she was 18, Hilda emigrated to South Africa where she lived a comfortable
middle-class life. But as she became increasingly aware of the oppressive and divisive nature of the
apartheid system, she joined the Communist Party, the only organisation with no racial
It was here that she met Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein and the couple married in
With a reputation as a fiery orator, Hilda Bernstein served as a City Councillor in
Johannesburg from 1943-46, the only Communist to be elected to public office on a "whites only"
Both she and her husband were active in the early days of the South African
Communist Party and the African National Congress.
They suffered banning and detention by the South African state, not to mention
being humiliated by the authorities who regarded them as white traitors.
By 1953, she was banned from 26 organisations and from attending any meetings.
Later, her banning orders were extended to include writing and publishing.
At the Rivonia trial, which saw Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists
sentenced to life imprisonment, Rusty Bernstein was the only one found not guilty.
But police harassment made his life unbearable and the couple
were forced into exile, having to leave their children behind.
Hilda Bernstein with her husband Rusty and Nelson Mandela
They crossed on foot to Botswana, and ultimately reached London. Later, Hilda
Bernstein told the story of their arrests, trial and escape, in her book The World That was
In exile, Bernstein was an active member of the External Mission of the ANC, and a
regular speaker on behalf of ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement, both in Britain and abroad.
She toured extensively in many countries of Europe, Canada and since 1994, South
Africa, on behalf of the ANC and the Women's League.
Eventually, she and her husband settled in England, near Oxford, where Rusty
Bernstein worked as an architect, and Hilda continued to write. She also became an artist, exhibiting
her work in London, France and various countries in Africa.
After Rusty Bernstein died in Oxford in 2002, Hilda moved back to South Africa. She
leaves four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A statement by the ruling African National Congress, the organisation she spent
years championing, said "The liberation movement mourns a tireless political activist whose lifelong
commitment to the cause of the South African people will continue as an inspiration for generations